Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Making the Shift, Part 4: From "Target Future" to Teaching

In this series of posts, I’ve tried to raise awareness of executive function processes, examine their role in successful learning and thinking, and begin exploring how they can receive greater emphasis in education. In this final post, I want to investigate these ideas within the framework of a commonly taught topic. I’m choosing my verbs carefully, and I’m using investigate because I hope the results spark input from others. I’m still incubating all this material, very much in the learning stage of understanding and the novice stage of application. The thoughts that follow merely represent one way of engaging student learning that also engages and develops executive function processes.

Working with the story from the previous post, one “target future”1 pictures a current student capable of recognizing what needs to be accomplished and what is needed to accomplish it, of formulating a plan and prioritizing and executing its steps, of evaluating the results and of shifting focus as needed, and of presenting the information and conclusions with confidence.

With that target future in mind, a teacher may turn to the required content for the American History class she teaches and note colonial America’s movement toward revolution as a topic. She has a focus.

The teacher reviews the focus with a critical question in mind: What form will engage students in interacting with and acting on this content? Keeping in mind the “target future,” the teacher decides to require students to demonstrate their learning as collections of evidence for a pending trial. Who’s on trial? The Sons of Liberty—visionary revolutionaries or radical extremists? Students will build cases for both conclusions, collecting facts, first-person accounts, expert insights, and anything else that may support either extreme. Thus, the form takes shape; students will develop convincing but opposing arguments.

While this challenge directs attention to several critical concepts, it may not address all the required content. Since this is a high school class, she decides to list the few other elements that must be addressed and take suggestions from the class about how to integrate them into the given form.

The teacher also decides to work with the students to develop a rubric for the form. She has some ideas, but to engage student thinking and motivation, she decides to involve them in defining what a complete project will look like, what elements will be assessed, and what will define achievement for each element.

With a focus and form established, the teacher consider the frame. What timeframe will enable the students to produce excellent results and be appropriate for the content’s importance in the year’s study? She teacher selects ten class sessions as the frame.

Focus: The Sons of Liberty within colonial/pre-Revolution America
Form: Presentation of arguments for Sons of Liberty to be considered visionary revolutionaries and, in opposition, as radical extremists. Frame: 10 class sessions.

A rough outline begins to form:

Session 1: Presentation of focus and discussion of form. Discussion of what completing the arguments will require. Initial discussion of steps for planning. Homework, complete list of steps needed to complete the challenge.

Session 2: Discussion of planning steps. Discussion and formation of rubric. Homework: Students complete plans, assigning timeframes to each step. Teacher puts rubric into a distributable form.

Session 3: Review of plans. Mini-presentation by librarian and ed-tech specialist on potential resources. Initial research begins.

Session 4-7: Review of findings, continued monitoring of plans and execution of identified steps, mini-presentations by teacher on key concepts or research tools. Throughout, the teacher monitors student progress and provides instructive feedback, referencing the rubric to help students improve their work and attain the highest possible level of achievement.

Session 8: Discussion of findings and potential tools for presentation. Final steps of plan executed.

Session 9: Rubric review and presentation refinement.

Session 10: Presentations.

The presentations may be electronic “portfolios,” in-person presentations, “hard copy” portfolios, dramatic role-plays (the prosecution vs. the defense?) or whatever form the teacher and students agree as being effective. Also, the teacher and students may determine together whether the form will be completed as individuals, groups, or some combination. The more the teacher can engage the students in active planning and executing of the work required for learning, the more experience the students gain in successfully applying executive function processes. And the more successfully they learn to apply executive function processes, the closer the teacher moves them toward the “target future.”

Answering Some Objections

I know, it sounds idealistic and our classrooms are firmly grounded in the realistic. Can a teacher “give up” that much control and maintain an instructional environment? I’d say that depends on your definition of instructional environment. If you think students taking notes from one designated expert constitutes learning, then no, you can’t even consider such an approach. But if you recognize that authentic understanding is constructed by the brain, and that executive function processes play critical roles in working memory’s constructing of understanding, then you may see this ideal as representing a potentially real instructional, or better yet, an effective learning environment. Students are still accountable for their work and learning, but they get a say in how that work and learning will develop. They become participants in the learning, not merely recipients.

Some may think this sounds great for upper high school classrooms but not for lower levels of education. I agree that not everything can be taught in this way, but I disagree with the age-limit argument, and so do researchers. A 2004 study of students as young as third grade found that children could grasp the concept of experimental design, design experiments, differentiate cause and effect, and even make models and symbols.2 With the proper scaffolding and active formative assessment and instructive feedback, even young students can learn to engage executive function processes while learning.

Wait, you may be thinking, what about my master’s degree in history, or science, or literature, or…? You still will have opportunities to share your knowledge, but the delivery will be different. You may present mini-sessions on some key elements, share your knowledge with individuals or small groups, and use it to guide students to discover some of the same concepts. Your content expertise will need to be accompanied with expertise in guiding student LEARNING. Think “coach,” not “talking head.” A coach still has expertise, but the players master the skills, and actually play the game. The coach is not diminished by the players but serves as the guide who empowers their success. Likewise, the teacher empowers students to learn.

In conclusion, I recognize that not everything can be taught this way. But I challenge readers to consider how much of this approach could be effectively used within what they teach. If you teaching something that is heavily skill-focused, could an occasional focus, form, and frame that engages students in applying several of those skills help them connect what you are teaching with the executive function processes they’ll use to determine when and where to use the learned skills? Could similar approaches with far narrower foci and greater teacher scaffolding be effective in early childhood education? All I’m asking is this: consider the possibilities before dismissing the idea.

You may discover that a “target future,” a focus, a form, and a frame are all you need to supercharge student learning.

1. Hurson, T., Think Better, (New York: McGraw Hill, 2008), 127-141.
2. McGinnis, J. R., & Roberts-Harris, D., "A New Vision for Teaching Science," Scientific American Mind, 20 (5), 62-67.

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